National Teacher of the Year

1984 National Teacher of the Year

NameSherleen Sue Sisney

School Information

School Address
Ballard High SchoolLouisville, KY
Teaching AreaU.S. History

Washington, D.C., April 18, 1984 - Mrs. Sherleen Sisney, a 37-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, high school teacher who believes "economic illiteracy" to be one of our most serious national problems, was honored at the White House as the 1984 National Teacher of the Year. She was chosen from among the 1984 state teachers of the years, who represent more than one million elementary and secondary school teachers, for the 33rd in this annual series of awards.

The National Teacher of the Year Program, the most prestigious of its kind, gives recognition for excellence in teaching. It is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the Encyclopaedia Britanica Companies and Good Housekeeping magazine.

At the White House ceremony, President Reagan presented Mrs. Sisney with a golden apple, symbol of excellence, as her husband, daughter and parents look on. One basis for her award is the key role she played in helping raise the academic status of her school to the highest in the state following a near disastrous merger, which saw all of the schools in her county fall to the bottom not only in enrollment and financial support, but in practically all educational measurements. Mrs. Sisney has been teaching for 13 years at Ballard High School, where she is now co-chair of the social studies department and teaches 11th grade advanced American history and 12th grade economics and political science.

Another basis for her receiving the honor are the innovative, sometimes unorthodox teaching methods she has devised to make abstruse economic concepts come to life as part of her longtime efforts to combat economic illiteracy. She contends this undermines the ability of most people to vote intelligently on vital public issues, and also to manage their everyday economic affairs. She points out, for example, that one out of two young Americans are unable to differentiate between the economies of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and that 24 percent of the general public cannot define "private enterprise." Yet, she says, only 13 states require economics for high school students.

Her classes in economics, although among the most difficult, are the most popular in the school. She uses every teaching tool available - debates, seminars, guest speakers, discussions, "simulation games" - to help her students become aware of the importance of understanding economics and the principals behind economic policy. Some of her specific projects with students include their setting up simulated communities and an enterprise of their choice, and students dividing into countries to develop trade agreements, barter precious metals and sell petroleum.

"Economics is the most relevant aspect of any curriculum I've ever been involved with," Sisney says. "It's going to have an impact on the whole lives of students." To put her principles into practice, the award winning teacher has also gone outside the classroom and worked relentlessly with the business community to get it to volunteer manpower, equipment and money to help upgrade the quality of her school, as well as others in the country.

A schools-business project she helped pioneer several years ago at Ballard is now being copied throughout the state, and was credited with helping turn around the seriously negative image her school and others had endured following the forced merger of all of her county's schools in 1975. That year the Louisville school system went bankrupt and a state law mandated that it be merged with the other Jefferson County schools, creating one school district. At the same time, a court order was issued requiring county-wide busing for desegregation. None of the schools was prepared for either challenge, which began only two weeks before the fall term. Decreased enrollment, violence, and a drop in teacher and student morale and the community reputation of the schools resulted from this.

One of the first steps Mrs. Sisney took, in an attempt to reverse the low morale, was to involve the business community in the schools. After surveying what other cities were doing to involve business in schools, Mrs. Sisney, with the help of the Junior League of Louisville, started the Schools-Business Project, which brought local business people into the classroom to lecture, answer questions, conduct seminars and debates, arrange field trips, set up independent projects and provide money or materials when needed. When specific businesses were studied, such as banking, bankers would come in and talk with students on the economic problems involved. This first-hand relationship not only brought a new world into the classroom but helped business leaders to understand the problems of the schools and the students. The result was a turnaround in both morale and reputation.

Last fall, to create good publicity for a school system whose image suffered because of the merger, Mrs. Sisney began a public relations campaign aimed at local businesses. With the help of the Junior League, some 30 women are meeting with business men and women to further educate them on school progress and accomplishments. Today, Jefferson County schools, with Ballard as its crown jewel, has the highest achievement scores in Kentucky. More than 70 percent of Ballard?s students go on to college. The school has sent Presidential Scholars to Washington two out of the last three years, and has doubled the number of its Merit scholarship winners. And with the close involvement of community and business organizations, its reputation throughout the community is high.

Mrs. Sisney was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma, but moved at an early age to nearby Blackwell where she graduated from high school. She and her husband, Thurman Lee Sisney, an attorney, have a daughter, Shara Lee, 5. As the 1984 National Teacher of the Year, Mrs. Sisney will be speaking at education conventions, seminars and conferences throughout the country, representing the nation's classroom teachers.

Other finalists in the 1984 program were C. Ray Baker, Southside High School, Fort Smith, Arkansas; Francis Clark Chamberlain, The Community School, Napa, California; and Kim Natale, Pomona Senior High School, Arvada, Colorado. The National Teacher is chosen by a selection committee of educational leaders, appointed by CCSSO, upon review of applications received from the state teachers of the year and interviews with those chosen as finalists.